With each medical bill that slips through your mailbox, or each test result you view online, you fall prey to the fastest growing form of identity theft. You may think it may not cause you harm if someone steals your medical identity, but think again.
Last year, medical identity theft accounted for only 3% of identity theft crimes, but has become the fastest growing crime to date. With the economy slumping and many more people becoming uninsured and needing healthcare, these numbers may double by the end of this year.
There are several ways your medical identity can be compromised. If a person gains access to your medical insurance information, it is easy for them to file bogus medical claims, gain access to your birthdate and social security number, collect false medical insurance payments and more. For those who have suffered medical identity theft, it can be even harder to prove that these claims were not yours. If a person steals your identity and ends up having surgery or collecting prescriptions, you could be the one stuck with thousands of dollars in medical bills and unpaid charges. It could ruin your credit, or possibly jeopardize your ability to carry health insurance or switch insurance carriers in the future. And if you really think it doesn’t matter, think about the cost. If medical identity theft keeps rising, so will your health care premiums.
In a recent US News Report, Brandon Reagin explained his frustration when he became a victim of medical identity theft. “It was horrible…and what made it worse is that no one really knew what to do when it first started happening.” (US, 2008) In addition to $20,000 in medical claims, the person that stole his identity was also responsible for opening cellphone accounts and stealing two cars in his name. But probably the most frustrating thing was the fact that many states, including Brandon’s, didn’t have medical identity laws in place to protect him. The hospital and clinics who saw the person who stole Brandon’s medical identity were unprepared to handle a problem of the magnitude. The person who stole Brandon’s medical identity had been seen on an emergency basis for an injured hand and kidney stones. What happens if Brandon comes in on an emergent basis and they give him drugs he may be allergic too, or complicate his treatment because of false information on his medical record?
Medical identity if it happens to you will affect you both in the long and short term because of the far reaching nature of the problem. It doesn’t just affect a person financially, but also your credibility as a person.
There are several ways to protect your medical identity. Listed below are several ways for keeping your information private and secure:
1. Treat your medical insurance card like your credit cards: Just like your credit cards, make a copy of your insurance card and store it in a secure place. If your credit or medical cards are ever stolen, you will have a hard copy of what your card looked like, and will be able to quickly and easily locate your information and call your insurance company to report the card as stolen. Also, show the card only to insurance providers, and make sure they return your card after making a copy for billing purposes.
2. Read your EOB (Estimate of Benefits) and all bills carefully: The slips of paper that come into your email inbox or in your home mailbox can be easily discarded. You need to make sure that you read every bill, and EOB carefully! Look to see if you are being double billed for the same visit, if your insurance was billed and paid, and if deductibles had been met. Keep track of your family’s visits to the doctors office, and make sure that the EOB’s coming match up correctly to the actual visit dates. If anything seems unclear or hard to understand, or doesn’t seem right, call your insurance company. If you have a son or daughter in college, make sure they tell you when they visit doctors, and the doctors names. Make sure they also give your home address and phone number as their contact information. That way, bills don’t come to an apartment they only lived in for several months and their identity isn’t compromised. And, if you or your son or daughter owe money on any bills, you will know about it. They may resent having to tell you, but explaining to them the reason why you are asking them to do it should suffice. Also letting them know that you don’t need the reason why they went should help them feel more secure in telling you.
3. Ask for an “accounting of disclosures”: Under HIPPA laws, you have the right to request an account of disclosures from any health care provider who treats you. The account tells you what personal information was released, and who it was sent to. This is one of the best ways to stop theft, as any fraudulent information may be passed between medical providers.
4. Check your credit report periodically: You should already check your credit report at least once or twice a year. Make sure you are checking for any unpaid medical bills, medical collection bills, or fraudulent medical charges on your credit report.
5. Be wary of the online world: While security has come far, be cautious when using online passwords to access tests or medical information. Many “freebies” are popping up all over the internet. Promises of free doctor visits, free prescriptions and free health advice are all being promised over the internet. Be wary of these sites and make sure you are dealing with a reputable company. Look closely into any offer asking you for your credit card, health insurance information, or Medicare information.
What can you do if you if you become a victim of medical identity theft? In a post in the Chicago Tribune in August, some valuable updated information was given for those who fall prey to medical identity theft:
1. Immediately call your local police department and start a police report. Let them know you have been a victim of medical identity theft and have had your identity stolen. If they are hesitant to start a claim for medical identity theft, be firm and let them know you must file a police report since you have become the victim of identity theft.
2. Get a copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus. Highlight the charges and items on your report that are inaccurate. Immediately begin the process of disputing these charges with the credit bureaus.
3. Contact your insurance company and any and all clinics, hospitals, or collection agencies and inform them that you have been the victim of medical identity theft. Write to your insurance company and make sure you include a copy of your police report, as well as a detailed list of any fraudulent charges. You may include a copy of your credit report if necessary.
4. Obtain a copy of your full medical record from local hospitals, clinics, and doctors offices. Let them know up front that you have been a victim of medical identity theft and are needing to obtain your full medical record in order to dispute any discrepencies in your file. Some hospitals will put an alert (a sticker, or electronic flag) that will show that you have been a victim of medical identity theft. That way, if you ever have an emergency and are unable to respond, the hospital will be aware if there are discrepencies in medications that were given during hospital stays, allergies that may not be the same from visit to visit, etc.
It may be necessary for you to show them you are a victim of identity theft with your police report, as well as prove from your insurance that you were never seen at the hospital or clinic for that problem–ever. Doctors offices and hospitals may give you the hardest time, and may not want to take things out of your file for fear on their end. The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud states, “federal law lets patients correct medical records created only by the medical provider or insurer that now maintains your information. A hospital or insurer that later receives your information doesn’t have to correct its records – even when they’re wrong. But you do have the right to have your records state that you disagree with the information.”
If you have a hard time getting them to remove or acknowledge inaccurate visits and medical records, contact the hospitals patient representative, or the administrators office. If you are dealing with a doctors office, consider taking it to the Board of Medicine or Board of Registration in Medicine. Contact the local Board in your state to determine what the exact steps are to take in order to do this. But remember to talk to the doctor directly, first. Doctors are often overloaded and often do not handle the day to day office operations. Contacting the doctor directly to make him aware of the situation is crucial. He may be able to then oversee the office manager and work as a whole to solve your problem. Only if he or she is unwilling to help after you have given them your information and asked for their help and been denied should you then seek to contact the Board.
Medical identity theft can be the most frustrating thing to resolve. Down the road you could be on vacation and find that someone was using your name and sought treatment at the same hospital. Doctors are left trying to decipher what care to give you. You could have accounts and collections show up years down the road in your name for medical procedures. The most important thing to do in the case of medical identity theft is to become proactive and monitor your information, your medical records, and your credit closely.
For more information on what to do when you become a victim of medical identity theft, call or visit any of these organizations:
Federal Trade Commission:
Coalition Against Insurance Fraud
World Privacy Forum